WASHINGTON — Washington. -- As American soldiers faced off against Iraq, and nationalism grew, TV film from Baghdad showed people who look uncomfortably like ourselves. In sport jackets and dresses they walked along sidewalks where fruit and vegetables are sold while nicely-dressed children dawdled along.
Those ordinary people, trapped between a dictator and American military might, made me realize that efforts by President Bush to demonize Saddam Hussein have come dangerously close to igniting the pungent fires of anti-Muslim intolerance and racism in America.
I've spent several years in Muslim lands, from Morocco to Malaysia. Behind the exotic and mysterious veils, gelabas, keffiyas and turbans I encountered some of the finest human beings I'd met anywhere. I also met some of the stupidest, most emotional and illogical ones. In fact, on the whole, Muslims are neither better nor worse than Americans.
When my motorcycle crashed on loose gravel outside Fez in Morocco some years ago, an Arab who saw me fall accompanied me to the hospital and then took me to his home to recover on his couch for a week. I learned from him that thousands of Moroccan Jews lived side by side with Muslims in Fez, Marrakesh, Casablanca, Rabat.
In Istanbul a few years later, a worshiper at the Blue Mosque dragged me inside despite my protestations that I was not a Muslim. ''Never mind,'' he said. ''Allah Bir -- God is one. You can join us on the line.'' He showed me how to stand and bow and kneel -- rather painfully, I might add -- during prayers. In every Turkish town I visited, I went first to the mosque where I was welcomed and met the nicest people.
At noon in the coastal town of Antalaya the pounding of the hammers in the metal shops and carpentry booths stops as the muezzin's call to prayer echoes over the rooftops. A few dozen workmen, drivers and professionals collect at the nearby mosque, wash dust and grime from their arms and feet and dry off on clean handkerchiefs they leave in the sun while they pray. A 15-minute set of prayers is said facing an empty space -- a marvelous, relaxing, healing symbol, like a psychiatrist who simply listens yet you feel unburdened. The experience leaves one refreshed and ready to return to work, even if you simply meditate as I did, not knowing the actual prayers.
In Iran, foreigners are barred from mosques and somewhat ostracized. But when our car broke down on a remote road, the passers-by stopped and tinkered till it got going. In the next village, a farmer insisted we spend the night in his small, smooth-domed mud house. While going outside to relieve myself in the middle of the night I was shocked and touched to see our host and his family sleeping on a carpet under the stars. He had given us ''infidel'' visitors his own family's bed.
Saddam Hussein has failed to turn these good people into a fanatic, intolerant horde ready to follow him in a jihad against the Western or Christian world.
First of all, of the world's 840 million Muslims only 193 million are Arabs. Some 535 million Muslims are Asians from Pakistan, Bangladesh, India and Indonesia. They have their own problems of feeding, education and development while the intrigues of the Middle East are at best a remote sideshow with, however, potential to be manipulated by communal leaders.
Turkey's 50 million Muslims are interested in selling textiles to Europe and America, creating jobs and becoming the first Muslim member of the European Community.
The Arabs themselves, amid the rubble of Baghdad or in the streets of Cairo and Algiers, seem more to be the victims of their political intrigues than of dangerous masses inflamed by religious fundamentalism and Arab nationalism. Yet the latter view is spreading among many Westerners and has for years dominated thinking in Israel.
The Jewish state, its 4.7 million people surrounded by nearly 200 million Arabs who have attacked it four times since 1948, are understandably paranoid about their neighbors. To survive they must suspect them all.
But Americans live far from the entrapping passions of Cairo, Jerusalem and Beirut. If anyone can become a peace broker through a benign use of a superpower or world leadership role, we alone can do it, if we don't get bogged down in racial hatred. We must see that anti-Arab feelings do not taint America's traditional tolerance. See what has happened to the French.
''I was living in Paris and I was earning very well but I had to return here for the children's sake,'' an Arab engineer told me in Algiers some years back. ''In France, the French looked down on us. And our children feel it and somehow they become what the French think they are -- des voyous -- hoodlums.'' Just then his 15-year-old son came in, nodded toward me and kissed his father's hand. Seeing the polite, alert boy told me the father had made the right choice.
American soldiers in World War II and since then millions of travelers, tourists, students and peace-corps volunteers have left legacy of good will in the Arab world. The failure of Saddam Hussein to rally any but an insignificant number of the world's Muslims against the United States, even as we fought a Muslim country, indicates that that reservoir of good will remains. It's to be expected that Arabs and Americans will have differences. But the vast majority of Muslims are no less sensible than most Americans. We only succumb to Saddam Hussein's game if we forget that.
Ben Barber is a free-lance journalist.